First Person / Small prophets: Seers and psychics just aren't what they used to be
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I once asked the late Jeane Dixon if she would write a brief essay on the future of food. Jeane was at that time the nation's best known psychic. She wrote a syndicated astrology column, was credited with predicting the assassination of JFK and had foreseen various other events, most of which never came to pass, but who ever remembers?
I wanted the essay for a book my advertising agency was doing for H. J. Heinz Co., which was well known for its 57 varieties but actually had 3,700 other brands as well. The book had varieties, too. It featured many guest authors, maps of tuna migrations, a crossword puzzle and a section titled "Reigning Cats & Dogs," which included Little Orphan Annie's dog Sandy and the cast of the musical "Cats" -- but its real agenda was to feature Morris the Cat, star of Heinz pet food commercials.
Jeane was delightful. She said she would be happy to write the piece because her favorite snack when she was working was a soup she made in two minutes out of Heinz ketchup and hot water. Later, I wondered why she hadn't foreseen that Heinz's then-CEO, Tony O'Reilly, would eventually veto the idea of including a prophetess in the book. But then, having known that all along, she would also be aware that, being honorable people, we would pay for her article anyway -- which we did, and then we got Isaac Asimov to do the futuristic piece, which was called "What's to Become of Eating?"
Asimov anticipated the strengthening of trends to organic farming and reduced use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and the hormones and antibiotics fed to cattle. He thought there would be more use of radiation to sterilize foods for indefinite storage and hoped that scientists would soon come up with something that would deliver the taste of salt without its adverse effects on water retention and blood pressure.
Next to Jeane Dixon, the most famous prophet was Michel de Nostredame, commonly referred to as Nostradamus -- but we couldn't invite him because he had been dead for five centuries. One of his claims to fame had been that he prophesied the exact date and location of his own death.
My mother, for one, didn't realize that Nostradamus hadn't made this prediction until the day before he died, when he could tell he was pretty sick. I mention Mom because she was a fascinated student of the prophet. She confided to me as a child that Nostradamus had predicted the election of FDR (bingo!) and the discovery of penicillin, and that he had said the Russians would invade the West Coast of the United States in 1954. They would use germ warfare and would get as far as the Rocky Mountains.
Well, sure. We knew those Californians were laid-back lefties, but nobody gets past our Rockies. Ask the aliens who crashed in Area 51. In 1955, I asked Mom if she had heard from the Russians, and she just glared at me.
What brought all this to mind is a new translation, "Nostradamus: the Prophecies," by Richard Sieburth. Mr. Sieburth doesn't stretch after-the-fact interpretations as far as FDR and Russian invasions as did the mass market paperbacks my mother was reading -- germ warfare? -- but he does cite portentous passages about an evil predator called Hister whose conquest of Europe and ultimate downfall sound eerily like Hitler's. Mom knew about that, too.
To write about Nostradamus, the author first has to set the scene. His subject lived at a time when virtually every culture on earth had its prophets -- and took them very seriously. The prophet's utterances were typically regarded as the awesome voice of a god -- imparting knowledge, wisdom, admonitions, warnings or long-range weather forecasts calling for the filling of granaries.
It's hard to get into that mindset now, in an age when prescient proclamations are coming from meteorologists, economists, tout sheets, sell-side analysts at Wall Street brokerages, the sports book in Las Vegas and -- to foresee what great leader might rise to guide our nation -- pollsters. Small prophets. Our leading prognosticator is Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com, and his record is far better than that of Nostradamus.
Thus, it's no surprise that Steven Connor's analysis of the Nostradamus translation in the London Review of Books maintains a pragmatic skepticism about traditional prophets and prophecies in general. He notes that they never seem to come up with anything specific enough to be useful -- like tomorrow's winner in the fourth race at Aqueduct.
Instead, the old-time clairvoyants have visions of apocalyptic, decades-long cataclysms (e.g., "Blood, plague, famine, fire, mad deluge"), which later seem roughly suitable for describing almost any period one happens to be thinking or writing about. As Will and Ariel Durant concluded after completing their 11-volume "Story of Civilization," "In the last 3,421 years of recorded history, only 268 have seen no war."
Mr. Connor compares the calamitous forecasts of soothsayers to the signs posted along roads running underneath cliffs -- DANGER: FALLING ROCKS.
"Armed with this knowledge," he asks, "just what are you supposed to do?"
Compounding such grand ambiguities, a book like Mr. Sieburth's also faces the smaller but often vexing challenges of translating medieval French. Ce qui sera jamais ne feut si beau is rendered, "Never so fair was that which shall never be."
If that's your prediction, it's hard to be proven wrong. Or right, for that matter.
First Published November 17, 2012 12:00 am